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Dozens of migrants unexpectedly flown to Martha’s Vineyard can sue the transport company, federal judge rules

By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

(CNN) — A federal judge in Boston has ruled that the nearly 50 migrants who were transported from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022 in flights arranged by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis can move forward with a lawsuit against the company that dropped them off. The destination of the flights was a surprise to both the migrants and residents of the Massachusetts island, according to the lawsuit.

Three Venezuelan migrants and immigrant rights group Alianza Americas filed the suit alleging DeSantis, members of his administration and Vertol Systems Company, a Florida-based aviation transport company, misguided migrants and transported them in what the rights group calls an “uncivilized, fraudulent, civil-rights conspiracy targeting LatinX immigrants.”

The migrants, solely identified in the lawsuit as Yanet, Pablo and Jesus, allege they were initially told they would be flown to “a city in the Northeast” and “if they got on the flight, they would be provided with stable housing, work, educational resources” and help in their immigration proceedings, according to the order.

Before the flights, some plaintiffs were asked to sign a transport consent form that “identified Massachusetts as the final destination,” according to the court order. However, it was only shortly before landing they were told for the first time that they were being taken to Martha’s Vineyard, the lawsuit says.

It’s a move the White House denounced at the time, but one that hasn’t been particularly uncommon in recent months as a slew of Republican governors have moved to do the same – transporting migrants to more liberal cities such as New York, Chicago and Denver in protest of what they’ve described as a failure of the federal government to manage the escalating migrant crisis and secure the southern border.

Before the flights, DeSantis spoke publicly about his plans to get Florida involved in redirecting migrants from the southern border as a way to maximize heartburn for Democratic leaders. In August 2022, DeSantis telegraphed that Florida might help move migrants from the US-Mexico border – but not from his state.

CNN has reached out to Vertol Systems and an attorney representing them but has not heard back.

While US District Judge Allison Burroughs ruled last week the migrants can proceed with most of their claims against Vertol Systems, she dismissed claims against DeSantis and the other officials named in the lawsuit due to jurisdictional concerns.

Burroughs said she did it “without prejudice,” leaving the plaintiffs and their legal team the option to refile their claims in another court as the case continues.

“As we’ve always stated, the flights were conducted lawfully and authorized by the Florida Legislature,” DeSantis’ office told CNN in a statement Tuesday, noting the judge’s order dismissed the state as defendants. “We look forward to Florida’s next illegal immigrant relocation flight, and we are glad to bring national attention to the crisis at the southern border.”

The migrants signed consent forms before the flight, were given a map of Martha’s Vineyard and were not misled, DeSantis said in September 2022.

After a few days of uncertainty when the migrants arrived at Martha’s Vineyard, they were ferried and bused to temporary housing at Joint Base Cape Cod where they were “housed in dormitory-style spaces … with separate spaces accommodating both individuals and families,” Massachusetts then-Gov. Charlie Baker’s office said in a news release at the time. The migrants had access to legal services, health care, food, hygiene kits, and crisis counseling.

It’s unclear where the migrants are at this time. CNN has reached out to Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director for Lawyers for Civil Rights and the attorney representing the migrants, who pointed to the organization’s statement.

Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue, who was named in the suit for his role in “soliciting quotes, selecting vendors, and negotiating contracts to transport immigrants to Massachusetts” had “approved the payment from the $12 million in funds appropriated to Florida DOT,” the plaintiffs allege. The judge dismissed claims against Perdue.

“As we’ve contended throughout the process, FDOT followed the law,” a spokesperson told CNN. “We’re proud to stand with Governor DeSantis as he works to bring attention to the crisis at the southern border.”

Florida has paid Vertol Systems over $2.3 million since 2022 as part of the state’s program to relocate migrants, according to budget records reviewed by CNN.

“The favorable ruling is a major victory in the Martha’s Vineyard case, and it sends a crucial message: private companies can — and will — be held accountable for helping rogue state actors violate the rights of vulnerable immigrants through illegal and fraudulent schemes,” Lawyers for Civil Rights, Boston, the migrants’ legal representation, said in an online statement about the ruling.

The plaintiffs allege the DeSantis administration hired a videographer to record their arrival at Martha’s Vineyard, according to the suit. Aside from the videographer and van drivers, no one in Martha’s Vineyard or in Massachusetts had any prior notice of plaintiffs’ arrival, the suit said.

“Treating vulnerable individuals like plaintiffs in this way, as alleged and accepted as true for purposes of the motion to dismiss … is nothing short of extreme, outrageous, uncivilized, intolerable, and stunning,” the court said in the ruling.

Despite the unannounced arrivals, Martha’s Vineyard residents and activists worked quickly to help those who were caught in the crosshairs as political pawns in the nation’s ongoing migrant crisis by providing a place to sleep, meals, a play area for children and access to health care.

“We will stand strong in our fight for dignity and justice for all migrants who are being dehumanized,” Alianza Americas said in an online statement.

As for next steps, “the migrants will seek jurisdictional discovery to continue to assert claims against DeSantis and other conspiracy perpetrators, including all the state defendants who have been dismissed for the time being,” Lawyers for Civil Rights said of their clients in an online statement.

CNN’s Paul P. Murphy, Ray Sanchez and Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.

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